DoD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Odierno from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington, Va.
GEN. ODIERNO: I promise that this whole book isn't my opening statement. (Soft laughter.)
Q (Off mike.)
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, good morning to everybody. It's great to see you in person after 15 months in Iraq, looking -- actually not even being able to see you through the camera lens as I did these via Baghdad.
I returned about two weeks ago. As you know, we were focused for 15 months in Iraq on improving the security situation, which allowed a window of opportunity for economic development, improved governance and enhancement of the Iraqi security forces.
Multinational Corps Iraq is now led by Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin and his great team from the 18th Airborne Corps. The corps is poised to continue helping the government of Iraq in moving forward on all the critical issues facing the country.
General Austin is keenly aware that much work remains ahead and is sharply focused on the numerous tasks at hand. And I was extremely comfortable with the hand-over that we had, very comfortable with it. Our thought process is much alike. He's an incredibly talented individual, and I feel very, very comfortable with where we're at.
The situation in Iraq is now largely a communal struggle for power and resources. Both intra-Shi'a, intra-Sunni competition as well as external influences are at the center of issues facing the government of Iraq. Iraq is a complex country; there is no blanket solutions for the country.
The improved security conditions, in part from the surge of 2007, has given the Iraqis an opportunity to choose a better way. We can likely make some more progress in security, but the focus must shift to jobs and economic opportunity, making strides in governance both nationally and, just as important, locally, and a continued bettering of the Iraqi security forces, bolstering both their capacity and their ability to conduct independent operations.
The future of Iraq belongs to the Iraqis, and we must support them in moving towards that future.
Before taking your questions, let me emphasize there was much sacrifice to achieve the gains of 2007. Let us all never forget those whose lives have been changed forever because of injuries and those who gave their lives fighting for the ideals of liberty as well as their loved ones. Their sacrifices were and will not be in vain. And because of them, Iraqis have the right to choose their own destiny. Let us forever remember our noble and gallant warriors who gave everything so others can enjoy life and liberties of a truly free people.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk to you this morning, and I -- with that, I would be happy to take any of your questions.
Q General, Bob Burns with AP. You've mentioned a number of times that the security gains of recent months, while substantial, are not irreversible. I'm wondering how long you think it'll take to reach that stage, how will you know when you get there, and how does it relate to your calculations about lowering troop levels.
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, it's very complex. And when I've thought about irreversibility, what I think about is -- really it's a couple things. One is the capacity that Iraqi security forces can really do independent counterinsurgency operations. And it has to do with equipping them. And I know you just talked to my great friend Jim Dubik, and he just gave you update on these. But it really has to do with finishing the equipping, officer shortages that they have because they are making their officers go through three-year academy. So it's going to take time for them to develop that. And as well as that, obviously it's the governance piece, in my mind, as we move forward. And it's local, it's provincial, and it's national governance.
But what's encouraged me over the last couple weeks is the reconciliation -- many moves towards reconciliation that you're beginning to see by the government that I think is starting to move this way.
It's the passing of the accountability and justice law, it's the amnesty law, it's the provincial powers -- although that was vetoed by the Presidency Council, I think that will be worked out. I think that's part of the process. So they're starting now to move forward with the reconciliation, so I think that's a key piece of it as well.
So I think once people are convinced that we're moving forward with reconciliation, Sunni and Shi'a will be able to come together and work towards Iraq's goals in the future. I think that's when we really start to see what I believe to be irreversible. I'm not saying you have to be irreversible before we have more reduction in forces, but that ultimately is what we're after, where this will not -- cannot be turned around by single events or multiple events.
Q They could go down to 10 brigades, perhaps, or some other number without --
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, without having -- I believe so, as you continue to see improvement in these other areas. And that's the assessments that will have to be done as we move forward.
Q General, you probably noticed since you got back we're having a campaign here in this country. And there's been a lot of discussion of the future course in Iraq. And one of the major proposals put forth by one side is to withdraw the remaining brigades out of Iraq at a rate of about one or two brigades a month, getting to the point where you have no more combat brigades in Iraq within 16 months. I'm just wondering, when you hear proposals like that talked about in the campaign, how realistic is that? Is there a danger in going that far, do you think, what would happen?
GEN. ODIERNO: I think the answer -- you know, what I would say to whoever gets elected as the next president is, what we really need is assessments. We got to constantly do assessments. You know, 12 months ago nobody would have thought we're where we are now in Iraq. And so you have to do constant updates, assessments. You got to do evaluations. And then based on that, you got to make a decision on where we're going to move forward. And that's both from a military perspective, which will be given by General Petraeus and the leaders of Iraq and the chairman and the secretary of Defense, as well as policy decisions that they have to consider.
So that's all I think is appropriate, is that in fact they conduct these assessments and then make a decision on where we want to go in Iraq; and what are their goals in Iraq, what do they -- as their policy, what do they want to achieve. And we got to look at how we do that from a military and policy standpoint.
So I think it's really too early to really ask about that, because I think by November we'll see where Iraq is and where Afghanistan is in November. I think we'll see it on January 20th or whatever date is -- the inauguration is. And then I think we just continually do assessments. I think we're set up to do that. I feel comfortable with the system that's in place, that General Petraeus has put in place, that he'll brief back here to the secretary of Defense, to the chairman, as they go forward to the current president and whoever the next president might be. I think there's a good process set up to involve Congress, as well, with testimony.
So I think we just have to continue to go through that and be patient. But it's about the assessments, and it's really about really constantly doing what I believe to be good assessments on the situation.
Q So would you caution anybody running for president now not to get locked into a promise about, you know, where it's going to go, because --
GEN. ODIERNO: I'm not involved in advising presidents right now, John. But I would just say from a military perspective what I would ask for is just do an assessment, ask the military leaders involved to give you the current assessment, and we'll be prepared to do that. The chairman will be prepared to do that based on, you know, what's going on on the ground.
Q Kimberly Dozier, CBS News. What are some of the markers you're looking for? You keep saying this wonderful word, "assessment." What does that mean? What do you need to see to bring troops down?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I think first it's the level of violence. It's the capacity of Iraqi security forces. It's the status of local, provincial, central governance and the relationship they have between each other. It's job development and economic development.
It's all of those things. And we have many factors that we have decided underneath each one of those that goes into those assessments.
But frankly, as the commander on the ground -- you know, when you're there every day, you get a feel for things. You understand, you get a feel for how the Iraqi security forces are improving. You get a feel for the threat. You get a feel for how economic development is, and you use that with the assessments of subordinate commanders to give your assessment to the chain of command. And so -- I mean, but those are the areas we look at specifically.
Q General, do you have a specific number in mind that if you were advising right now that you would say, by January of next year, we should be down to a certain level? Because there's a danger of staying too long. You're seeing this progress, but if you stay too long at a certain high level, Iraqis are going to start losing faith the U.S. is planning to go home --
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, yes, I think it's too early to do that. I mean, again, we're at -- within the next week, I think, we'll reduce another brigade. We'll be down to 18 brigades within the next week, I think, in Iraq. And we're going to go down three more through the end of July. So, I mean, let's do -- you know, what I want to see is let's get -- I feel comfortable -- when I left Iraq, I felt very comfortable going to 15 brigades. I think that was a good decision, based on where -- but I now I want to see what happens when we go to 15 brigades. What does that mean? Based on the factors I just talked about, what are the conditions on the ground? And then we go from there, and I think that's what General Petraeus will talk about.
Q Joe Tabet with Al Hurra, sir. Yesterday the Iranian president, Ahmadinejad, was in Baghdad. From your experience, how do you see the Iranian role in Iraq, and do you think the Iranians are still helping and aiding the extremist militias in -- like al-Sadr militia in Iraq?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, I would just say, first, Iran is a neighboring country of Iraq, so they've got to have relationships and they've got to continue to work those relationships. The issue I have is to make sure that that relationship is a helpful relationship. A lot was made yesterday of the fact that he was able to walk around and nothing happened. My comment is, I'm not surprised, because over the last 12 months, whenever a visitor would come from the United States, we'd either foil a rocket attack or the rocket attack happened.
Guess what? That's because there -- it was being done by Iranian surrogates. And when the government of Iraq holds a meeting, there tends to be rocket attacks. Why is that? Because it's done by Iranian surrogates.
So my comment is, let's have a helpful relationship. Stop supporting -- what I expect out of Iran is, they should stop supporting these surrogate organizations who continue to attempt to destabilize the government of Iraq. So, I mean, I think that's -- hopefully, that's what they talked about behind closed doors.
I think we have to keep the pressure on them. It's easy to come in and say: Hey, look how things are. You know, they like us better than the Americans. Well, you know, that's because maybe they're causing some of the problems in Iraq. And I think we should challenge them on that and continue to challenge them on that.
They have a huge role to play in Iraq as helpful partners in the Middle East and to the Iraqi government. What they have to stop doing is training surrogates, funding surrogates and supplying weapons to them, which they are still doing today.
Q General, you've talked about assessments. A lot of people of course are looking to April, to General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker's testimony. But is that a good point for an assessment or for decisions to be made? Or is a better time after you've completed the drawdown, when you have a look and have a pause in the drawdown? Then you can have a look. Should people be expecting decisions at that time?
GEN. ODIERNO: What I don't want to do is put words in General Petraeus's mouth, to be honest with you. He will conduct that assessment. I'm going to leave that up to him so I'm going to leave it at that.
Q When would you say is the next decision point though? Where would you --
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I would just, again, I'll leave that up to him. But I think again he can give an in-process assessment. He can give a current assessment based on April, and I think he will do that. Then I think probably sometime, you know, August-September time frame, he might want to do that again.
Q On Iran, have you been able to determine whether they're still providing EFP material, technology and training specifically?
GEN. ODIERNO: I believe we have pretty clear evidence that they're still conducting training. I think it's unclear whether they're -- we're still finding a lot of EFPs inside of Iraq, so let's just put it that way. Whether they're still shipping them in or they've been there for a while, I can't tell you that.
Q Sir, just looking ahead to your next job, much like General Casey, you're going from a warfighter position to a Title 10 position. General Casey has probably been the most vocal officer, here in Washington, about the extent of the overstretch of the Army because of the deployment rates, and sort of implying that we should be withdrawing troops faster.
Obviously you're only two weeks out of Iraq but you've spent a lot of time with soldiers on the ground there. Can you try to start putting on your Title 10 hat and say how concerned you would be, from talking to soldiers in Iraq, that this overstretch is beginning to really hit a critical point?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, what I would just say is, first, this natural tension that occurs will always occur, and it's a good tension.
First, you always have to listen to the commanders on the ground and what they believe they need to accomplish the mission that they've been given to accomplish. And then what we have to do in Washington is decide, what can we provide, and what impact does that have on the Army?
And do you have to be concerned about it? Sure. We have to be concerned about the long-term viability of the Army. But again it's about also considering what the mission is.
And I think General Casey has been pretty clear. I don't think he is -- I disagree with your assessment that he wants to withdraw as fast as possible. I think what he's interested in is getting tour lengths to an extent that can be sustainable over time, for the long term, to meet many different missions. And I think we all, all of us, agree with that.
But again when I was the corps commander and General Petraeus was the MNF-I commander -- now Lloyd Austin is the corps commander -- it's about what they need to do the job. And we have to have that natural tension to get the right answer.
Q Maybe I mischaracterized what General Casey is saying. But can I frame it this way? He and Admiral Mullen as well seem to be more and more dire in their pronouncements about the health of the ground forces. Having spent obviously 15 months with --
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, what I would say is, first off, we have the best armed forces in the world.
We have the best army in the world. And that has not changed. The young men and women that are fighting over there are doing tremendous work. They are absolutely, incredibly impressive. And any of you -- I know a lot of you have spent time with them; I don't have to tell you that.
So, you know, the issue becomes the long-term viability of an all-volunteer force. Obviously, this is the longest war we've fought with an all-volunteer force. I am confident with what I've seen in the captains and majors, what they're doing and the fact that they want to stay in the army. That's who I look at -- captains, majors, sergeants, staff sergeants, sergeant first class -- the real middle grades there that are the future of our Army and Marine Corps as well. And that's what you look at.
And right now I'm okay with where we’re at -- now that doesn't mean you don't have to watch it. I mean, obviously you can't let it get out of balance. And with an all-volunteer army, it's about families. It really is about taking care of your families. And so you got to make sure we have the programs in place to do this. And I'm also worried about that we continue to take care of our soldiers that have been wounded as well as those families who have lost their soldiers. That's all part of the long-term viability of an Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force as you look to the future, because that's what's going to sustain us. People understand and look at how we take care of each other. And we understand that completely.
Q (Sorry to ?) touch on it, but to go back to the issue of assessment --
GEN. ODIERNO: Sure.
Q Nonetheless, let's be clear. The Democrats are talking about mandated -- different ones, but mandated timelines for withdrawal from Iraq. The generals, the senior commanders are right now with the mission of assessments and conditions-based withdrawal. What is your feeling if it comes to the point of mandated withdrawals, whatever they may be, rather than conditions-based? Do you think that the senior commanders can adjust to that? Will they salute smartly and just say yes?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, it depends on where we are, Barbara. I mean, it depends on where we are 10 months from now. I mean, that's what we're talking about, January of 2009. So it depends on where we are in Iraq in 10 months. At that time, if that's decided, we'll have to make an assessment to decide whether that's the right thing to do. And if it's not, it's our job to say, with the mission you've given me, can we accomplish this or not? And that's what they're going to have to do.
But to say anything about that now is premature, because 10 months from now, you know, I don't know what Iraq's going to be like. I think it's going to continue on a path of moving forward, frankly. I believe that. But I don't know what it's going to be like, so I'd really rather wait to answer specifically your question.
Q Do you think that senior commanders, as you know them today, will feel comfortable telling any new president of the United States, whoever it might be, that they disagree and they think it's a bad idea?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I think -- I do. I think the military commanders on the ground will make an assessment and they will give their opinion to the CENTCOM commander, the secretary of Defense and the president. And then a decision will have to be made. And then based on that, then we'll have to just go from there and see what happens.
Q General, Muqtada al-Sadr announced the extension of his cease-fire last month. I'm wondering, in your estimation, how pivotal has that cease-fire been to the downturn in violence?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I think it all plays a role.
I think it's overplayed a little bit, frankly. But I will tell you, what's important is Muqtada al-Sadr, I believe, is trying to refocus his movement. I think he's trying to move away from a militia-based organization to one more that is helping, which it started out to be, which is helping the poor Shi'a community have a role and a vote in what goes on in the government of Iraq, politics and other things.
So I think I see him trying to move towards that, and what we're seeing is a separation of what I call mainstream Jaish al-Mahdi and then those rogue elements that have now broken off, that tend to be the Iranian-supported elements, ones that are being funded by Iran. And so I think we've seen that split, and that's actually helpful for us because we now understand who's doing what. And so we'll continue to work in going after those who we consider to be irreconcilable, where we think the majority of the Sadr element is becoming more reconcilable in terms of working within the framework of the government of Iraq. We hope that's where it's going. I think he's moving more towards what his father wanted to do with this movement, and I respect that he is trying to move it that way.
Q Sir, I want to go back to Peter's question. What is the metric -- what are the defining elements of trying to determine how much strain is being placed on the force, in trying to decide to move back from 15 months to 12 months? I mean, we keep hearing about this delicate balance; you know, we're trying to balance things between the needs on the ground and the needs of the force and the strain on the families. But is that a measurable sort of thing?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I think -- you know, ultimately what we're trying to do is get more time back between deployments. I mean, I think that's the thing we're looking at, is, you know, more time between deployments, ultimately. So I think that's what you're after.
You know, right now we're getting one-for-one basically, what we call if you're deployed for 12 or 15 months, you're home for 12 to 15 months. That's what we're trying to achieve. We'd like to make that larger, and we think if we can make that -- so if you're deployed for a year, you're back for two years; we're not there yet. We're not close to being there yet. But that's kind of the metric I think we want to look at. So we understand and try to at least put -- reduce some of the strain on the families, and that's what we're trying to do by raising the size of the Army, increasing the size of the Army, increase the size of brigades and also reducing the requirement as we have success.
And the tension becomes with how much do you need to continue to have the success that we've begun to achieve now in Iraq, and then what are the requirements in Afghanistan and how we meet those requirements.
And then, oh, by the way, you want to have some to do other requirements, if in fact something else comes that we have to respond to.
Q Is it possible that if we go back down to 15 brigades in Iraq, that the situation on the ground will mandate that 15-month deployments continue through the rest of the year?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, first, I'll leave that up to the Army. Again, that's a question that they need to answer. I'm not yet part of the Army staff or the -- you know, so I will allow them to answer that question. What I believe is -- again, I think I'll let them answer that question.
Q Sir, you were given credit for kind of changing your thinking about how to fight a counterinsurgency. And in effect, some people would say you got the memo when it comes to fighting a counterinsurgency. Could you talk a little bit about how your thinking changed and adapted through the past year? And also, as you kind of go into this next job, do you see the Army as well prepared to do what it needs to do in these kinds of fights?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, well, I would just say, first, there's nothing like experience, being on the ground, getting to see it every day. The most important thing, though, is to try to take that and learn from it.
And who I learned from is a lot of my subordinate commanders, frankly, these great brigade commanders, battalion commanders, division commanders. We had a collaborative process and really had a chance to really talk about this very complex problem and try to come up with the best solutions to fix these problems. And that's what enabled us to really -- and in fact, that environment was what I credit with the change, the fact that we had an environment that we were able to have these discussions. No single person does any of this; it is a team effort, you know.
And so us working together as a group, us trying to come up with these right solutions, but it's also the -- you know, what I was most impressed about with our leaders is the time -- you know, everyone had been over there before. The time they spent back here, they used that to really do some introspective looks, as well as -- I did as well, continued to study the problem and what is the best solution as we move forward. And I think that helped us as we started to implement this counterinsurgency strategy. So I was very happy about that.
And you asked a second part.
Q What about the rest of the Army, as you kind of --
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah. I would just say, first off, it's very important, as we move forward, we are full -- what I call full- spectrum. That requires us to operate across many different levels. We can't forget the lessons we've learned -- what I call irregular warfare. And we have to continue to make sure we emphasize that. And it's about adaptability in our thinking. It's about decentralizing, giving right and left limits, providing intent, decentralizing responsibility, and then allowing them to adapt to the problems and give them the resources to do that, whether it's a division, a brigade or battalion. We have to continue that thought -- it's about decentralized thinking, decentralized execution.
It's -- you know, our conventional forces are doing operations that our Special Operations Forces did in 2003. Our Special Operations Forces are moved higher up on their capacity to conduct their operations. And that's how -- we want to keep that, but still going back and being able to do some higher-intensity conventional operations if we can. I feel very comfortable that we can do that. But we can't ever completely go back to conventional. We've got to maintain this irregular warfare capacity that we have built into our Army.
Q Real quick, though. As you come back, do you see that there's a lot of pressure to kind of forget those lessons learned?
GEN. ODIERNO: No. No. In fact, I see us incorporating it every day. I mean, I see it incorporating in our schools -- both our officer, noncommissioned officer schools, in the academies I see it being incorporated. But there's still work -- more work in our training centers, national training centers, all being incorporated, Joint Readiness Training Center. We just have to make sure we don't stop, we continue moving forward, we continue thinking about it, we continue improving ourselves. That's the challenge I think we have.
Q How much does the retraining in counterinsurgency play into the increased dwell time? Because I know that the families are a big focus, but you have to retrain for these full spectrums. How large of a piece is that?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, you know, it's one of the things we talk about all the time. You know – we’re deployed for a year, home for a year -- during that year you're not just sitting home every night. You're out training and doing a lot of other things and still spend some time away from home. That's why we want to extend that time. And also, you know, and we'd like to have a bit more time to reintegrate units, to spend more time on our equipment, to spend more time doing those kind of things.
So time does play a role in it. But we have been able to do it very well. Our equipment is continuing to perform very well under really tough conditions that we have to inside of Iraq. So I'm comfortable with what we're doing. More time would just give us a bit more -- reduce the risk, mitigate the risk a little bit more.
Q General, you talked about things that have to happen in order to reach an irreducible level of violence. So what are the risks that you see that could turn this thing around and move it in the other direction?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I know there's probably something that I'm not thinking about. There always tends to be that one thing you're not thinking about that can happen.
But I worry about intra-Shi'a violence a bit. That could, you know, could spiral out of control. I feel comfortable with where we're at on that. I think we have a good plan to do that.
But that's something we have to -- external influences, Iran, you know, I worry about that a little bit. I think that is the long-term issue, and I think we have to be -- understand that.
So I think those are the kind of things and just what we call accelerants to violence. If there's some event that happens that would accelerate this sectarian tension that is there -- sectarian violence has really been significantly reduced. There's still some sectarian tension.
So what we don't want is that sectarian tension to turn back to violence. The more time we go without sectarian violence, the tension begins to reduce. And the change of that reduces. However there's still a risk in that sectarian tension.
So what we look for is, what are the events that could cause a rise in sectarian tension? You know, when they had the second Samarra mosque bombing, one of the things I learned is, because the Iraqi government came out very quickly and really went out to the population, it had very little effect at all on sectarian violence. That's the kind of thing that helps us mitigate the risk.
So as further away we get from it, the better chance we have of mitigating that. But those are the things I worry about.
Q General, what are your thoughts in retrospect about the role of contractors on the battlefield and the extent to which U.S. forces depend on them, for everything from logistics support to security in some cases?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, again, for a long-term mission like we have, it is necessary for us to have contract support. I mean, I don't think anybody would deny that, because they allow us to reduce the amount of soldiers necessary to do those kind of missions.
What we've learned though is we do have to have some regulation and some work -- control of these contracts, specifically their security elements. And we've done that. And I think the vision that has occurred here, and we continue to work over the last six months, will help us do that.
For example, before I left, we set up -- we now had a cell set up in the joint operations center that I ran that coordinated the movement of all contractors. They had to come in, report to us. We had to understand where they were at. We knew exactly what was going on. We weren't doing that before.
So as we write contracts, you know, we write them a bit differently now, you know, to make sure that they understand what their responsibilities are. This will continue to move forward. We still have many things that we have to do. And there's many legal issues yet that have to be worked out.
But we're on the right track with that. And we have to -- again this is the first extended war we've had where we've used contractors for an extended period of time. That helps also to reduce the strain on the Army and the Marine Corps and the Navy and the Air Force by doing this. And it's short term.
You know, if we had to do it with soldiers, you'd have to bring soldiers in for a long period of time. And you'd have to significantly increase the size of the Army, which is very, very expensive where by using contractors, you pay for them for a finite amount of time. So it helps us for that as well.
Q Can you talk for a second again about Iran? Have you noticed any shift in what types of groups, for instance, Sunni groups potentially, are getting support from Iran? And also do you notice any shift in how Iran maneuvers the various levers it has for managing its involvement within Iraq?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I think they adjust as we adjust. I mean, I think they've adjusted to some of the criticism and tried to change how they are supporting. But leave no doubt about it that they are still supporting the insurgents.
There's been reports that they're supporting AQI and other Sunni groups. I have no hard evidence to say that in fact is true, just reports that say they also might be funding them at a small level.
Again I think it's -- this is about keeping, in my opinion, a weak government of Iraq. And I think Iran benefits from that. And I think, you know, we've seen, you know, I think that's something we have to just look at as we move forward here.
Q Can you just sort of give us your overall assessment of al Qaeda in Iraq, I mean, a rough idea of how many are there? Where are the areas that they're still influencing?
GEN. ODIERNO: I'll give you data that's probably 10 days old.
So, but I think, first, al Qaeda's capacity has been degraded significantly inside of Iraq.
They were operating in eastern Diyala province, up near the Hamrin ridge line. We did offensive operation up there, pushed them further up there. They moved up to Nineveh province, in and around Mosul. We are now conducting operations up there.
They are struggling, in my opinion, to maintain coherent capacity. However, they still have the capacity to -- and what they're trying to do, what al Qaeda wants to do is do an event where they get on TV every once in a while so people know they're still there. That's what they're down to, now, can I just get some attention by doing some attack somewhere so I get attention so people know I'm still here in Iraq. And we're just constantly pursuing them to make it as difficult as possible to do that.
I think unfortunately with these terrorist organizations, they will always be there at some level. But what you want them to be, you want them to get to a point where they become almost a nonentity. We're not there yet with al Qaeda. As you -- they're still able, as a month ago or so, where they strapped suicide vests on. We knew two women we know -- we think had Down syndrome and were remotely detonated. That's how desperate, in my mind, they've gotten.
We saw an attack way out west of Mosul, I think in the last week or so, where really we pushed them further out to the west. So what they're trying to do is just -- so people know they're still around. And so what we want to do is make it harder and harder for them to do that, and that's what we're constantly doing.
Q Any assessment of just how many there might be?
GEN. ODIERNO: It's hard to say. I will say, you know, there's two pieces of it. There's those foreigners who tend to be the leadership of al Qaeda, who has been reduced significantly. I don't know the exact numbers, but they have been reduced. Then you have the Iraqis who have become part of al Qaeda. And what we've seen is -- the thing that's really changed is Iraqis have made a choice.
The majority of Iraqis have rejected al Qaeda. There's still a few that are now supporting them. But what's good about -- you know, one of the big advantage of the Sons of Iraq or concerned local citizens is they know who they are, and they're very easily identifiable to us, and that's made it much easier for us to identify those Iraqis who are involved with al Qaeda. And that's made it -- that's helped us as we've moved forward here.
Q You said -- you talked about the need to keep the pressure on Iran. How precisely do you do that, and are you talking about military pressure, political pressure?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I think -- you know, I think it's by not letting them off the hook about what they're doing; you know, talk about it. You know, I think we have to continue to let people know what they, in fact, are doing. I think that's important. I think that when they operate inside of Iraq, that we need to keep constant pressure on their surrogate networks that they have. And as we find these surrogate networks, let people know what we've found, so people don't forget what Iran is trying to do inside of Iraq. I think that's how we can continue to keep pressure on them.
Q Is that the greatest long-term threat to stability in Iraq?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, as I look today, if I -- if you ask me what I worry about most, I do. I do worry about that as a long- term threat, and I think we have to, you know, constantly watch it.
Q Sir, in your meeting yesterday with the president, how would you characterize that, and what were the main points that you made? And what was the area he was most focused on?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I would just say, first, I really appreciate the president taking the time to meet with me and also say hello to my wife who was with me, and that meant a lot to us that he did that and thanking me for my service. That meant a lot to me.
You know, the secretary of Defense was there and the vice chairman. We just talked about, you know -- he wanted -- he asked some questions about the Sons of Iraq, concerned local citizens; you know, he asked some questions what I thought about Iran and a few other things. So we just had a good discussion. I gave him my thoughts, he listened intently, gave me his comments back. It was a very, I thought, productive session, very helpful. I think he got something out of it, I hope.
And again, it was really more to thank me for what I did, and really it wasn't about thanking me. He was using it as an opportunity to thank all the soldiers, Marines, air men and sailors who are sacrificing in Iraq, and he just did it since I was their commander. And I really appreciated him doing that.
Q Did you make some specific recommendations to him?
GEN. ODIERNO: No, I did not.
Q General, to go back for a second to the long-term viability of the Army you talked about earlier, if you can, talk about the importance of re-enlistments going forward -- not just to grow the Army, but to maintain that health. You mentioned captains, you mentioned some of the NCOs. That's been a good-news story, relatively, the last four or five years.
But there seems to be growing concern that that -- that the multiple deployments, not being able to get from 15-month deployments to 12 months soon enough, that could sort of drop off a cliff.
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, noncommissioned officers and enlisted soldiers we reenlist. We don't reenlist officers. So, you know, our reenlistment rate, again, was 130 percent last year, Multinational Corps Iraq, which I think says a lot, that, you know, they want to stay, they want to continue to do what they're doing. On the officer side, obviously, what you do is you just continue to extend your volunteer -- you don't actually reenlist, you just kind of stay on. And so we have to monitor that very closely.
What I tell everybody is we have to just be more personal in our personnel business. And I think that's a shift that we have to make. You know, we have to make sure that we are talking to these young captains and majors and sergeants and staff sergeants and understanding what their issues are so we can help them solve them because we want them to stay.
I'm convinced that we are still keeping quality people, but we have to watch it. You know, things like -- I talked yesterday to somebody about it. You know, when I was a captain, they allowed people to go to graduate school at a much higher rate than they do today. I think we need to look at that again. I know General Casey is, actually. Things like that, you know, which might entice a very high-performing captain to stay in the Army is very important. It's important to him and it's important to Army as we -- and that gets into developing the kind of thought processes we want, to continue this thought of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency, as well. So I think it all contributes to each other.
Q General, other than the op tempo issue, what do you see are some of the top challenges facing the institutional Army? And how do you yourself plan in your new role to kind of address --
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, again, I'll be honest with you, I have a lot of studying to do. Okay? I just got out of Iraq, where I've been very focused on operational issues. So I got to come in and really get my head around all the issues the Army has. I will just say -- I'll just make a very general comment about this, is my belief is the Army is about soldiers; that's what we bring. And so it's about enabling our soldiers to do the job that the commander in chief asks us to do. And that's what we have to be focused on. And that's a very general statement, but in my mind it's an important one. And I'll leave it at that.
Q General, could you talk a bit about the progress you achieved while you were there, specifically on the surge strategy? What aspects of it do you think really led to the sharp decline in violence we saw in the July, September time frame? And was it putting troops on the street? Was it a change in where those troops were located? And also, how confident you are that the insurgents are permanently removed from the battlefield, if you will, and/or do you fear that, in typical guerrilla form, maybe they're just laying low, if that's a fear of yours at all.
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, I would just say that there's several things that occurred. The surge enabled us to do some things. It enabled us to eliminate some safe havens and sanctuaries that had been established over time, specifically by al Qaeda and some other extremist elements.
So that's what the surge -- but just as important as the surge was the change in our tactics, techniques and procedures that got us back out in the neighborhoods and was -- and our mantra was protect the population, protect the citizens of Iraq. We were back in large bases. We would drive; we'd come out; we'd go in, come out. We moved back into the neighborhoods. We walked the ground; they knew who we were. You know, when I'd go out four, five times a week on patrol, what always amazed me, by the time I left, after we'd been out there six to eight months on the ground, is, they knew the names of the sergeants in the neighborhoods. They knew the captains. They knew who they were. There were relationships that were built.
The other thing that happened, that we probably didn't think through when we first did this, was, that gave us more brigades to partner with Iraqi units, which in my mind sped up their improvement, because there's no better way than to partner with them and do day-to- day operations with the Iraqi forces. And that is the best way for us to improve their capacity. And I think that's something we might not have thought through when we first said we were going to do the surge, but happened because of the plans that we put in place, specifically in Baghdad.
On insurgents coming back, I really believe that the Iraqis have hope now. And those that were involved in the insurgency have really decided that they want to be part of the legitimate government of Iraq and they are tired of the insurgency and they really want to move forward.
The only thing that could change that -- if there's some dramatic event that changed -- where they lose confidence in the government of Iraq and they believe that the government of Iraq is not there for them, and then you might see the reappearance of insurgency. If that does not happen, I believe they will not come back. There will be some groups of al Qaeda that try to do that. There will be some Iranian-supported extremists that try to do that. But we understand that, and I think that we'll go after that element -- piece of it.
MODERATOR: One or two more. Yes, ma'am.
Q General, you've only been here for a couple of weeks, but have you had the chance to follow what the Turkish incursion has looked like? You've probably been contacted.
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I would just say that I haven't followed it specifically. I would just say what's happened with this problem with the PKK in northern Iraq, it really has helped improve relations between the United States, Turkey and government of Iraq because of the cooperation that has gone on in working this problem -- the communication, the coordination, the level of coordination that -- gone on. Obviously we all agree that you cannot have terrorist organizations having safe havens and able to conduct attacks into another country.
I also believe that the long-term solution in northern Iraq is not a military one. And so -- but obviously there's pressures that have to be put on them, so we can start to talk and have negotiations with these terrorist elements.
I'd also say the cooperation of the KRG, the Iraqi Kurds, has been important. They have worked very hard with the government of Iraq, as part of the government of Iraq, to work this problem, and I think that's been important as we've moved forward in this. It is a situation that will go on for a while yet, as we all know, but it's going to take a lot of coordination between each element.
Q Sir, was there a key moment in the last year where you turned to General Petraeus and you both realized there was a tipping point?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, not specifically. But I will tell you -- (chuckles) -- in May and June of last year, when we were -- our casualties were the highest, we both could feel that it was starting to turn, but we weren't seeing it yet. And I would just say that's when we really turned to each other and kind of said we think we have this, but you know, we're not seeing the results yet. And so I -- that's probably the moment I remember most, because that was a tough one.
And then in -- once we -- there's two events that I remember that really gave me encouragement: when we finished the clearance of Ramadi in April and we saw Anbar really start to turn around. The second was when we went into Baqubah in June, and we did a significant operation up there in Arab Jabour and then Tarmiya in the north, while simultaneously -- and we really started -- after that we really started to see a change in Iraq, because those were those safe havens that had been established.
So that's when I started to feel like we had this -- we were making progress, we were starting to see progress move forward. And then in September and October we really started to see the decline in incidents, decline in casualties, decline in sectarian violence. And when we saw the Iraqis really rejecting al Qaeda at that time, really saying, "We do not want you here," very publicly, all of them, saying it almost across the country, that's when we started to feel a bit more confident with what we were doing.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you -- (off mike).
GEN. ODIERNO: Thank you very much.
Q Thank you, General.
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